By KEN DIXON
Toward the end of 150 minutes of face time Tuesday in two debates with Democrat Jim Himes, a disgusted U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays held up a handful of his challenger's campaign mailers and declared them "junk." Shays was at a podium in the Norwalk Inn, before about 130 people during a lunch-time showdown in which the incumbent stood on his record and reputation for bipartisanship in Congress and defended charges that he's too supportive of the Bush administration.
Shays, R-4, even printed hundreds of copies of a booklet on his record in attempt to combat what he said during a morning debate in Bridgeport were "scurrilous," "dishonest" and "outrageous" attacks by Himes.
Shays' staff gave away copies of the 88-page book after each of the first two of seven debates and forums scheduled over the next week throughout the 17-town 4th Congressional District.
Shays thanked the audience for supporting his 34 years in public life and said that, win or lose, he's been proud to represent the district.
"Whatever the outcome, whatever you decide, I make one request on bended knee," Shays said, pulling out Himes' glossy attack mailers from a two-inch thick notebook, then holding them up under the TV lights.
"That it's not based on this kind of junk," Shays said. "A picture next to me with George Bush as if somehow I'm his best buddy. If you decide to vote for my opponent, have it be based on real reasons, not stupid stuff you're getting in the mail."
"Chris Shays has been in Washington for 21 years and I do salute that service," Himes replied. "But the fact is, for a long time, on the issues that really matter, he has made the wrong choices and ignored the issues that are making life challenging for people in this district."
Himes, standing at a lectern next to Shays, said the incumbent has admitted that voting to go to war was wrong, but he's backed the expensive, bloody conflict in Iraq for too long as the American economy was crumbling.
"He has supported lock, stock and barrel the economic policies of the Bush-Cheney administration," Himes said. "Where I come from, being that wrong has consequences. Our government is only going to turn us around if we finally start to hold it accountable."
Shays and Himes first traded attacks during a free-flowing 90-minute morning debate in Bridgeport's Housatonic Community College sponsored by the Bridgeport Regional Business Council and the Fairfield County Medical Association.
Himes kept track of the adjectives Shays used during that first debate, which inaugurated HCC's Beacon Hall.
"I have been critical of the stances Chris Shays has taken and yes, my advertisements are as well, but you did not hear me this morning criticize his motives or his character," Himes said. "You didn't hear me use words anything like three words he used on me this morning: scurrilous, dishonest and outrageous."
Himes said that the Bush administration cut taxes for the wealthy during a war and deferred the cost through the massive debt that will now have to be paid by America's children.
"Our economy is on its knees," Himes said.
"We are stuck in an outrageously expensive war that we never should have fought while our enemies gather strength in places like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan," Himes said. "The fact is, for a long time, Chris Shays has been wrong on the critical issues of the day: on the war and the economy."
"As your representative in Washington I am independent, I am bipartisan and I believe I'm very effective," Shays said.
"I go where the truth takes me, whatever the consequences," Shays said, stressing that during the last seven years, he has voted with Bush only half the time "and yet my opponent would make you think I am the president's clone."
"For me, I would sooner lose than go the very negative path my opponent has chosen to take," Shays said. "His mailers and TV ads are a tremendous distortion and some of his comments at meetings are truly outrageous."
The Bridgeport debate focused on healthcare. Himes said it's crucial to expand access to care because too many people can't afford the escalating costs. He called for a hybrid program, with characteristics of both the public and private sector and a focus on preventive medicine.
"What I propose would be a system by which we would create a government-sponsored pool at the federal level that would be open to everybody, to compete side-by-side with the private companies," Himes said.
Shays said that President Bush has presided over a doubling of the number of community-based health clinics for patient populations of whom half have no health insurance.
Shays said that since Himes is campaigning on the elimination of the Bush tax cuts, therefore the Democrat supports higher taxes. "Those are tax increases," Shays said. "What are they Jim?"
"They are tax deferrals," Himes responded.
"Interesting concept," Shays shot back. "You'll fit in really well in Washington, because that's doublespeak."
Himes said he's proposed a wide range of tax breaks for middle-income families and he anticipates that Shays will brag about the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.
"Let's put those tax cuts into context," he said. "Never, in the history of this nation have we ever cut taxes going into a war, much less two wars. Never." At the same time, Himes said, Shays sided with Bush in "radically" raising spending.
After a three-hour break they resumed the public high-stakes campaigning in a more-structured confrontation, with less room for response, before the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and a crew from News 12 Connecticut.
Shays said he favors a so-called blue card, so illegal aliens can register and work here, but would not vote for a path to citizenship.
Himes said he agrees with documenting aliens, but the nation should allow law-abiding people to be able to eventually apply for citizenship. He opposes the blue cards.
"In this country we have no business creating a permanent underclass of people to whom we say 'work your whole life, pay your taxes, you will never get to be a U.S. citizen," Himes said. "That is not an American principle."
"Wow," Shays replied. "If you play by the rules. Well they aren't playing by the rules. They came here illegally. They broke the law and they jumped in front of everyone else who is waiting in line back home. What Jim is basically saying is eventually they will be a citizen in the United States while people keep waiting and waiting."
After the morning debate, Guy Hatfield, the owner of a Fairfield insurance agency, said it's too bad that Shays and Himes are competing for one job.
"I wish Himes was running against someone who's less worthy than Chris Shays," Hatfield said. "Both those guys should be in Congress, in my opinion. I thought the debate went very well. Substantive stuff."